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C.L. Johnson, Joplin and Harlem dominate May '03 OCRS

The May 2003 OCRS, held at Steamers on the first Saturday of May, featured plenty of great ragtime, including generous helpings of Charles L. Johnson's music, the work of the great Harlem composers, and boogie-woogie, barrelhouse and blues tunes. Limited to only three hours, the society's musicians packed in a total of 33 pieces.

Emcee Eric Marchese launched things with Charles Johnson's peppy 1909 composition "Apple Jack," which was subtitled "Some Rag!" The piece features the Kansas City composer's typical structure (Intro-AABBACCBB). That sequence of themes, and the refrain of B recast in the subdominant, became the prevalent mold into which most of Johnson's followers (who included Irene Cozad, Maude Gilmore, E. Harry Kelly, Ed Kuhn and Mamie Williams) poured their creative ideas of piano ragtime. Like many a Johnson rag, "Apple Jack" features simple syncopations and many a circle-of-fifths harmonic pattern in both its tonic (C major) and subdominant (F major) keys.

Bill Mitchell picked up the Charles Johnson gauntlet with three of the popular composer's best tunes. He opened with the upbeat, folksy "Porcupine Rag" which, like "Apple Jack" was one of six Johnson rags to be issued in 1909. Bill followed with his familiar rendering of Johnson's biggest rag hit, the 1906 rag "Dill Pickles." He bookended his set with Johnson's last published rag, "Snookums," issued in Chicago in 1918. Bill played the first themes with a great deal of verve, playing up the A theme's intriguing use of the minor and the jazzy, funky aspects of the folksy B theme. The trio is pleasantly march-like, and Bill used the trio interlude to launch into a spirited reprise of the C theme, complete with much cool-sounding improvisation in the left hand.

Ron Ross delivered three originals: his 2001 rag-tango "Joplinesque," with pretty melodies, wistful harmonies and a lovely tag ending; "Digital Rag," which is not only jazzy and raggy but also lyrical; and "Sweet is the Sound," which leans on the habanera rhythm and which Ron said was the first piece he composed for performance at a ragtime gathering. (That was in 1998, and Ron has written over a dozen piano pieces since then.)

Shirley Case took the stage and gave a performance of F. Henri Klickmann's "Knockout Drops," published by Kremer, in Chicago, in 1910. The piece has a terrific A theme, a catchy B strain, a raggy and contagious trio and a closing section that uses a riff pattern and a break in the left hand part. Shirley then introduced the Luckey Roberts standard "Pork and Beans" (1913), noting that Roberts not only played for Harlem rent parties but also for society folks such as the Astors and Vanderbilts. Shirley's own rendering of this great piano piece was a stylish display of her almost flawless technique. Exhibiting her graceful hand positioning and smooth fingering even more so was her first public performance of Eubie Blake's "Tricky Fingers." Loaded with foxtrot rhythms, this lively piece features many up-and-down runs and broken chords, all nicely accentuated by Shirley's varying staccato and rubato handling.

Jeffrey Briar took the stage with violinist friend Sarah Wallin. With Jeffrey on the piano, the duo delivered a sweet, measured rendition of the Joplin ragtime waltz "Pleasant Moments." Played like a delicate salon piece, its melody line was carried by Sarah on the violin, while Jeffrey provided some carefully arranged countermelodies and interesting chord figurations. They then offered the 1906 instrumental version of Joplin's 1902 ragtime ballet "The Ragtime Dance." They executed a call-and-response pattern on the A theme, while on the rest, they doubled the main melody or Sarah played the tune while Jeffrey countered. In the penultimate section, Sarah took the downward treble runs by herself, playing them as smears, and the audience helped provide the loud stomps (or claps) during the closing three themes, all of which are engagingly written in stoptime. For their final selection, they merged two of Artie Matthews' "Pastime" rags - Nos. 2 and 3. No. 2 was played "straight," with its finale jazzed up; next came a segue leading to the tango-like opening theme of No. 3. The duo gave that rag's stoptime C theme a nice, crisp feeling, and Sarah created a pleasing vibrato effect in the closing section.

Boogie, barrelhouse and blues master Sonny Leyland took the stand and delivered the "Suitcase Blues," a Hersal Thomas tune from the '20s, providing many varied technical ideas in the treble and countless, intriguing variations in the bass. He followed with Little Brother Montgomery's "Farish Street Jive," using the left hand to pick up the melody in the second section of this forward-moving piece, which uses a decided boogie left-hand pattern in its middle sections. Explaining that boogie is his real specialty, Sonny then offered his own arrangement of the '20s pop song "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," offering a creative handling of the piece's well-known melody and creating a positively driving left hand throughout. As usual, with each number in his set, Sonny blew away the crowd and brought the roof down; his performance also prompted Steamers proprietor Terrence Love to invite Sonny back as a soloist on a weeknight (Tuesday or Wednesday) sometime this coming summer... stay tuned for more info on that!

Andrew Barrett then carried forward the Charles L. Johnson banner with the composer's 1913 rag "Crazy Bone," adding delightful left-hand embellishments to the peppy opening themes and the march-like trio. To introduce his next piece, Andy then noted that while New York City, Chicago and Kansas City (MO) accounted for a large percentage of the vintage era's published ragtime, "a lot of other great rags came out of the rural areas." He cited Indianapolis composer Paul Pratt as a fine example, saying that Pratt's rags were "top-quality - almost near Scott Joplin's." He then proceeded with an outstanding performance of Pratt's "Hot House Rag," published in 1914 by that maven of the Classic Ragtime style, John S. Stark. Andrew then closed his set with one of his two original ragtime compositions, taking his very upbeat, Popular Rag-style "Frequent Flyer Rag" for an exciting ride that had the audience at Steamers tapping their toes and cheering at the piece's conclusion. With many an inventive syncopation, this very raggy piece bodes well for Andrew's future as a ragtime composer.

Prepping for his upcoming Mother's Day "Harlem Giants" concert at Old Town Music Hall, Bob Pinsker offered four pieces by Luckey Roberts, Willie the Lion Smith and James P. Johnson. He opened with an extremely rare World War I song by Luckey that he said was "not spectacular or great but a curiosity," the pleasing 1917 march "Billy Boy," which he followed with Luckey's "Irresistible Blues." Bob then offered his own "reconstruction of a piece" by Willie the Lion from a 1925 copyright deposition lead sheet of Smith's "Spanish Rag," which Bob said was "undoubtedly intended to be a tango." His own arrangement, and his execution of it at the piano, were stellar.

Referring to his practice of transcribing the piano roll performances made "by my heroes," Bob noted that the closing selection of his set would be performed "in typically masochistic fashion." Those who recorded the piano rolls whose performances he tries to duplicate "could try anything and they (piano roll technicians) could just fix it later - something analogous to the MIDI-based recording techniques of today." However, live renderings - such as those produced by Bob - offer the performer no such margin for error and no chances for the pianist to correct any bloopers... hence the "masochism." Bob's transcription of a 1926 piano roll of a song from "Geechie, A Dusky Romance," an unproduced show by James P. Johnson and lyricist Henry Creamer was a song originally titled "Harlem Choc'late Babies on Parade" and later retitled "Harlem Bon-Bon Babies on Parade." His rendition offered loads of pep in the treble and exciting, piano roll-style licks.

[On each of his latter two selections, Bob noted that it was a common practice for the Harlem giants to paraphrase famous passages from the classical piano repertory as openings to their own originals. "Spanish Rag" opens with a quote from the Rachmaninoff warhorse Prelude in C sharp minor, while the Johnson number's intro paraphrases Chopin's "Military" Polonaise.]

Glenn Perlman, who doesn't actually play ragtime but who takes well-known songs and syncopates them, did so with a '60s hit from The Rolling Stones," "As Tears Go By." He started the piece at a slow rock tempo, gradually speeding it up and giving it the full ragtime treatment, much to the audience's delight.

Frank Sano - who plays rhythm for Bill Mitchell's Albany Nightboat Ragtimers, has his own combo called The Hotel Wolverine Ragtimers, and who runs the Dixieland by the Sea festival in San Clemente each year - took the stage to invite audience members to that event, which took place on the weekend following this OCRS meet. He then offered a quick piano medley of what he referred to as "saloon tunes" - these being "Hello, Ma Baby," "Darktown Strutter's Ball," "Old Piano Roll Blues," "Louise" and, finally, "Million Dollar Baby."

Eric Marchese sat down to offer a couple of selections. The first was "Lady Liberty," a contemplative piece composed the previous summer (his seventh original from 2002). Still incomplete as far as being put down on paper, Eric noted that this performance of the piece was his first for an audience. He followed the introspective piece with one of Joplin's 1909 opuses, "Country Club," noting its alternation of dancelike themes (A and D) with those that seemed suited to song (B and C), almost seeming to invite lyrics. With reference to "Country Club," Eric also quoted the liner notes from the 1974 LP "Piano Rags by Scott Joplin Volume III," in which Joshua Rifkin states that the piece captures a world populated by wealthy, privileged people "who probably would not have cared even to know that he (Joplin) existed."

Noting with some urgency that this ragtime society gathering would have to wrap up within the next half-hour, Eric invited Jeffrey Briar back up for an encore. Jeffrey offered an original composition called "A Sunday Stroll," the piano solo arrangement of "Pizzicato Cakewalk" which Jeffrey originally wrote to be played, entirely pizzicato, by a string quartet. Performed at an easygoing, unforced tempo that accented the treble's many blue notes, the piece's first two sections are memorable, using blue thirds and sevenths, while the third theme is more songlike and the interlude seems to create a mood of mystery. Jeffrey did a fine job with the piece, often voicing the melody in the bass part.

Bob Pinsker took the stage for his encores, noting that "whenever I hear Sonny, I wanna do bluesy numbers." He did exactly that, playing John Farrell's transcription of James P. Johnson's 1923 number "Weepin' Blues," a number with foxtrot rhythms and lots of blues devices and blues harmonies in a slow, Stride-style format. Bob closed his encore set with Eubie's immortal "Charleston Rag," lending it all of Eubie's typical licks and tricks.

Sonny Leyland came up to close the abbreviated afternoon with a pair of numbers. Starting with a piece called "Yearning for You" (composer unknown), he opened the piece at a relaxed tempo, then gradually broke out into a real foot-stomper and his usual awe-inspiring display of pianistic technique. He closed the day with his own version of W.C. Handy's immortal "St. Louis Blues," complete with wonderful vocals done in Sonny's inimitable bluesy/barrelhouse/rhythm-and-blues style.

Voicing everyone's sentiments, Eric reluctantly called it a day, invited everyone to the next OCRS event, scheduled for Saturday, June 21, from 1 till 4:30 p.m. He noted that the next ragtime society gathering would not be held at Steamers but, rather, at the Rockin' Taco Cantina just a block from Steamers, at 111 N. Harbor Blvd. in Fullerton. That venue, he said, has two grand pianos pushed together so that pianists can duet while facing each other, which means that the next OCRS should provide plenty of lively four-handed renditions of many of your favorite ragtime numbers.

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